Rockford’s place in the casino expansion bill
By Jim Hagerty
ROCKFORD – Although a group of investors is reportedly eyeing the distressed Clock Tower Resort & Conference Center as a site for a casino, the Forest City may have some high hurdles to clear before it’s approved under the latest gaming-expansion proposal.
According to the Rockford Register Star, a group of investors, including Ringland-Johnson Construction CEO Brent Johnson, wants to buy the Clock Tower, tear it down and build a casino if Rockford is approved for a license.
But that move won’t come cheap. Per Illinois law, casinos pay a flat $100,000 fee and $30,000 per gambling station – that’s per seat at a table and in front of each slot machine – meaning a license would likely come with a more than a half-billion-dollar fee.
A license could be the least of Johnson’s worries. To even give the group the nod, lawmakers must approve Rockford – along with five other sites – under Senate Bill 7, now part of a so-called “Grand Bargain” budget deal – 10 separate bills introduced at once.
Each bill in the package must pass in order for the grand bargain to move onto Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.
The casino bill was passed by a Senate vote of 31-26 last month but then stalled in Springfield, and the House has since moved forward with a $817 million stopgap plan instead.
Legislators are still ironing out other parts of the package. It is possible to float a casino bill to Rauner on its own, and that could happen within the next month. Lawmakers adjourn their spring session at the end of May.
The Clock Tower is not the only site Johnson and partners are eyeing, the Register Star reported, though no other properties were specified.
The resort’s owner, Beltway Hospitality, was recently fined nearly $230,000 by the City of Rockford for a host of code violations that forced them to close. A sale could reduce or negate those penalties, benefiting Johnson and Beltway only if a casino can be sited there.
In addition to Rockford, Danville, Chicago and sites in Cook, Lake and Williamson counties are included in the bill.
State Sen. Dave Syverson, R-Rockford, co-sponsored the casino measure.
Syverson has been a vocal supporter of a Rockford casino – and equally vocal about several downtown projects, saying aldermen would have better off waiting on the Amerock hotel deal until the gaming bill moved.
“A 60-day pause allows time to see if Springfield passes the Grand Bargain Budget,” Syverson said via Facebook before the Rockford City Council voted 7-6 April 10 to approve the latest downtown hotel deal with Gorman & Compnay.
“Included in that budget is the gaming bill for Rockford, which most likely the casino will build convention space at their cost, not taxpayers.”
Such a pause for Springfield to put a budget together, something the state has been without since 2015, would’ve seen key development funds for the Amerock hotel project lapse. The convention center is being paid for out of the city’s redevelopment fund, a 1-percent tax adopted in 1978 on hotel, restaurant, and liquor sales.
“The proposed budget also includes a property tax freeze making budgets even tighter for cities so taking on new financial risk would be a concern. I, like many, believe Rockford needs a hotel downtown but not one that costs taxpayers 10’s of millions of dollars. A time out with a new fresh set of eyes looking at the concept makes sense.”
Senate Bill 7 would also allow four horse racing tracks to add slot machines, and Chicago airports to install gambling machines in terminals. Some have questioned whether the Grand Bargain is legal under Illinois law.
The Rock River Times will have more on this story as it develops.